6-year-old joins mission with her mom to save police K-9s

Mother-daughter duo raising money to purchase life-saving supplies

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The killing of a St. Johns County Sheriff's Office K-9 in 2014 impacted 6-year-old Emma Johnson and her mom, Debbie Johnson, in such a way, the mother-daughter duo are now on a mission to make sure police K-9s around the country have the supplies they need to stay safe on the job.

Debbie watched the news about the death of the K-9 named Baron, who lost lost his life in such a brutal way, Debbie said she felt God leading her to do something.

K-9 Baron's 'End of Watch'

It's been more than three years since Baron was killed in the line of duty, but the pain is still there for his now-retired handler Farrah Ashe. She shared her memories of that tragic day with us, explaining the way she lost her best friend.

As Baron was chasing a suspect, that suspect shoved Baron's head into a muddy swamp.

"I performed CPR on him all the way to the animal ER, but it was all in vain. He was already gone," Farrah explained. "I didn't know. I thought maybe it was just water, but it wasn't. His lungs were full of mud. So, I lost him, my best friend. That was tough. It's like losing a child you know? I mean, to a K9 handler, anyway." 

It took a while before Farrah was able to return to her duties as a K-9 handler, but when she did, she did so with her new partner Grimm.

Shortly after she and Grimm hit the streets, the Sheriff's Office got an unexpected request from a woman with no ties to law enforcement.

"I thought that she was a crazy cat lady, but maybe a crazy dog lady, because we didn't know." Farrah joked. "That passion just doesn't happen every day."

She's describing Debbie Johnson, that animal lover who was touched so deeply while watching Baron's story and funeral. Debbie not only showed up at the Sheriff's Office to donate money to the K-9 Unit, she also took the department's Civilian Law Enforcement Academy classes just to learn more about the budget needs of the K-9s.

Debbie's experience included a ride-a-long with then Deputy Farrah Ashe, and her new K-9 partner Grimm.

"She's a dog lover already, and then she has this respect for law enforcement," Ashe said, still in disbelief several years later. "She put this together and made this amazing thing."

K-9s United launched

That "amazing thing" Farrah referred to is the nonprofit K-9s United, an organization Debbie created in order to raise the funds to buy specific, life-saving supplies and tools police K-9s need.

"It's almost as though I feel I'm supporting (Baron's) buddies," Debbie said.  "I know that sounds strange, but, as far as making sure that his legacy lives on."

Originally, Debbie wanted to organize fundraisers and just hand over cash, but when she was told there was no guarantee the money she raised would go only to the K-9 Unit, she figured out a way to make sure the money went where it was intended.

"I said, 'How about if I started my own 501(c)(3)?  Would you allow your agency to reach out to my organization to tell me what your needs are? I go directly to the vendor, make the purchase, and donated to the unit?' And they said, 'Yes.' So that's what I did," explained Debbie about how her nonprofit K-9s United was born.

Her daughter Emma, who is in the first grade, is just as dedicated as her mom.

"I made it when I was in Kindergarten. It's a little police vest," Emma said as she showed us different crafts she has made to honor law enforcement. 

Because of her mom, Emma has grown very close to Farrah and Grimm, learning techniques the retired handler now teaches through her obedience training business, named in honor of her fallen K-9 partner.

The more time Emma spends with Grimm, the more ideas she comes up with to help raise money to keep K-9s like Grimm safe. 

She holds bake sales and gets her friends involved in a 1-mile fun run. The 6-year-old has even used the money she earned from doing chores, to buy Christmas gifts for police dogs that she hand delivered across our area.

"How come you like them so much?" we asked Emma.

"Because of what they do for us," she answered.

K-9s United helping agencies nationwide

Through the non-profit K-9s United, Emma and her mom Debbie honors law enforcement across the country.

The organization has tributes and portraits of fallen police K-9s from North Carolina to California, from Florida to Alaska. They have raised $190,000 to buy costly supplies for 22 different agencies: everything from bite suits to dog crates to high-tech heat sensors for patrol cars that carry K-9s.

The Baker County Sheriff's Office, which relies heavily on K-9 searches and suspect chases in the rural community, is one of those agencies that has received help from Debbie and Emma's organization. 

"They've come a long way in this technology for us. To be able to have it is amazing," said Baker County Sheriff's Deputy Patrick McGauley as he demonstrated for us how his remote-control door opener works so K-9s can reach their human partners fast.

A police K-9 can cost as much as $8,000, and then add to that the special training, gear, dog food and supplies.

Sheriff Scotty Rhoden told us the donated funds have been immeasurable.

"It helps us as a small county because we don't have the funding that other big agencies do have," he said.

Local, national retailers supporting K-9s United

Many local and national retailers are supporting K-9s United, From Amazon to Expedia to Target, there are more than 100 retail partners donating a portion of purchases to the nonprofit. You can find participating company and retailer information here.

Debbie said her passion, along with her daughter's inspired nature, will keep the nonprofit going so more police K-9 units can get the tools they need.

"One day, when I'm not here, (Emma) will definitely take over K-9s United for sure," said Debbie.

Learn more about K-9s United , the needs of police K-9s, and ways you can help support the mission to keep them safe.

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